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The Elastic Office: Lessons Learned from a Year of WFH


A photo of colorful elastic rubberbands
Image: Jade -
With the one-year anniversary of the pandemic shutdown coming up in many cities, “I remember when” stories are filling many a conversation these days. Here at WorkSpace Connect, for example, we’ve found ourselves reminiscing how this time last year we had been sitting around a now-shuttered-for-good suburban office outside of Chicago wondering if we would need to cancel our big annual enterprise communications and collaboration event, Enterprise Connect, along with a companion one-day conference specifically for this audience, set to convene down in Orlando, Fla., later in the month. Oh, how naïve we’d been!
In many ways, the future seems just as uncertain now as then, but we have smartened up over the many ensuing months of working from home. For a look at what that means from a workplace perspective, I did my regular check-in with Melissa Marsh, founder, and executive director at PLASTARC, a social research, workplace innovation, and real estate strategy firm. What have businesses come to realize over the last year?
For one, organizations no longer need to question whether certain jobs are suitable for telework — i.e., remote or distributed work. The pandemic has brought the answer, without requiring a big spend on consulting fees. It’s also forced everyone to come to grips with office presence, said Marsh, noting that her pre-COVID observational research had shown that offices were unoccupied 50% of the time anyways.
As a result, we can expect two trends, Marsh said. First, telework will continue as a normality, not an exception. “It becomes just one of the ways that we work, which I think is better for everyone. It’s more inclusive, and it’s more supportive of work-life balance,” she added. As such, organizations are going to have to reshape office environments to be great places to go two or so days a week as opposed to five days a week, as per the original intent of most offices, she said. Additionally, “many organizations are going to see a viable condition of having some of their workforce being long-term remote,” living in regions they’ve moved to during the pandemic sans corporate office. Presumably, she added, employers will see it to their benefit to retain such employees, and vice versa.
Second, Marsh said, the future office must be “dynamic, fun, flexible, and potentially an activity-based work environment” that features a new level of audio-visual communications technology embedded within it so that when people are there they’re not further separated from their distributed or non-local colleagues than they would be at home. The ability to collaborate needs to be seamless. As she noted, “It’d be a pain to talk to the colleague in Colorado when you’re at home, but it’s not easy to talk to the colleague in Colorado when you’re in the office.”
Another realization for businesses is that “on-site is the new off-site,” Marsh said. In other words, the future workplace will likely better accommodate all-hands-on events and larger team get-togethers than the hotels, resorts, and other similar venues companies have traditionally looked to for such gatherings. This will mean organizations will need to make sure their offices are suitable for these purposes both from a physical and as well as a technology design perspective, she added.
A simple example of an enabling technology for this type of event has been the chat channel within or used in conjunction with a video meeting presentation, Marsh said. Chances are when hundreds or more employees have gathered for a company town hall, not everybody is going to be comfortable raising their hand to share an opinion or an idea. Being able to drop a note in a chat channel, however, has proven far less daunting for many people, she added. Now the question is how to get that same sort of functionality back in the office. “There’s a real opportunity to have a new notion of hybrid that blends together some of the things that we’ve learned and enjoyed in the COVID working experience into the future physical experience.”
The upshot, Marsh concluded, is this: Offices will need to be far more elastic than they have been in the past, and the way to accomplish is both with physical space changes and technology.